Over the past few days, a lively social media discussion has been developing among active and retired Missouri Highway Patrol officers relative to the relationship between salary and commitment to the organization. To be fair, I suspect similar discussions have transpired among the members of any uniformed organization currently in service to our citizenry. The general feeling among the experienced officers participating in this discussion is that salary is far more important today than it was in the early years of the Patrol, and I thought a peek into the motivations necessary to become a career Patrol officer would be entertaining.
Graduation day. The requirements attendant to becoming a state trooper have evolved a bit, however; the moment that you square up in front of the Superintendent, render a crisp hand salute and receive your commission is a moment that is etched into your permanent memory. I cannot speak for the climate in today’s academy, but am certain it is a rigorous and demanding experience. You will have demonstrated courage, mental acuity, physical strength and an appreciation for the complexity of the laws that we are charged with enforcing. You will have met the requirements necessary to donning the uniform and tools of the trade attendant to the application and judicial use of authority on our streets and highways. You are not quite there, but the blood in your veins will have begun the transformation from bright red to deep blue. At this point, you have set aside considerations relative to your earning power in other occupations, instead focusing on becoming a tested member of the Highway Patrol.
The road. Your first real road day, riding with an experienced officer, marks the beginning of what, for most of us, is a career that blends excitement, challenge and an eye opening appreciation for authority in an enforcement role together. You are becoming keenly aware that you are viewed differently by the community you serve. In my day, your presence in a restaurant was noted by everyone there as you enter and you were accorded a level of respect commensurate with your role. It was unimaginable to think that a restaurant, or any business, would not welcome your presence, an unfortunate reality today when officers are disdained in certain businesses. From the warmth of a coffee stop to the brutality of a fatal traffic accident, you begin accumulating experience. You become acquainted with the businesses in your zone, the bad actors and good citizens, and every square inch of navigable road, street and highway. Most importantly you are becoming a student of human behavior with an eye to lending as much dignity as possible to every interaction. You soak up the wisdom and experience of your fellow officers and are quick to ask questions about the unbelievable array of circumstances you confront. Every day brings a fresh challenge and a sense of accomplishment when that challenge is met. Your blood is becoming a deeper shade of blue.
The maturation phase. Somewhere around your second or third year of autonomous work, you begin mastering the complexity of the job. You will have fully assimilated into the fraternity of brothers and sisters in blue. The Highway Patrol is becoming a part of your very being and identity. You have begun to understand the internal squabbles and political machinations inherent to a state police organization and realization that you are a member of a closed society. Police organizations are masters at circling the wagons to fend of political challenges as well as other threats to their necessary autonomy. You become very comfortable with your role, having become a textbook example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs related to personal security, financial security, health and well being. Your sense of social belonging as it pertains to friendship and family has been established in a bifurcated fashion with your family being both your personal relationships and the Patrol family. Your blood is blue.
I worked for a fine, old school Sergeant in my formative years. He would declare on occasion that if you take away quitting time or your paycheck, no one would work anywhere for anyone, doing anything. He was right, of course. During those same years. I worked along side a fine career officer who would often opine that he could not believe he was being paid to do what he does, as he was enjoying his job so much. The truth lies somewhere along the line separating these two philosophies, which takes us back to the genesis of this discussion.
At a point in my career, I was offered a lucrative job selling handguns for a major arms manufacturer. Decision time. After a week or so pondering the numbers, I came to the conclusion that while I would enjoy the financial reward, I could not abandon my identity as a state trooper. This identification is as strong today as it was when I took my uniform off for the last time. My last day in uniform is marked by a photo of my daughter, now a state trooper and me, standing together hand in hand. I drove home, drank a whiskey sour, and teared up a bit……making every effort to accept the ending of one hell of a ride through the life I had lived. I, like so many of the officers before, and surely after me, placed the Patrol ahead of the salary……never letting salary become the means to an end.
I loved the Highway Patrol and revere the associations with my many brothers and sisters over the 27 years that I wore the uniform. Somewhere on the marker that notes my final resting place will be a reference to this great organization, as important a part of my identity as the name next to it.
My blood is still French blue……..